The overwhelming economic case for protecting our seas

This post first appeared on the @SynchEarth blog on 5 April 2013

by Alasdair Harris, Research Director, UK

Easter weekend saw the end of the UK government’s 3-month public consultation on the designation of new marine conservation areas around the coasts of England and Wales.

As a nation we have a lamentable track record in marine conservation, and currently protect just 5 sq km of our seas from industrial fishing – less than one hundredth of one percent of our coastal waters.

A 2011 consultation with scientists, fishermen and conservation groups produced a list of 127 new sites for protection – collectively spanning more than twice the area of Wales – for designation as so-called Marine Conservation Zones. Scientists believe that these zones would form an ecologically coherent network that would go a long way towards helping rebuild our struggling fish stocks.

Yet this latest consultation has marked a low point in the government’s efforts to protect our seas and coastal livelihoods. Since December, the number of zones being considered has been cropped to less than a quarter of the original 127 proposed.

When interviewed last week, Environment Minister Richard Benyon cited budgetary constraints as the reason for the cut back. Of course establishing new zones carries some cost, yet such a shortsighted view of conservation suggests a worryingly misguided understanding of the state of UK fisheries.

As a maritime nation with a rich and vibrant seafaring heritage, the sea is embedded in our national DNA – from Falmouth to Fraserburgh, fishing is woven into the fabric of British coastal communities.

But after decades of mismanagement, our fishing industry is on its knees. Where there was once abundance, a century of dredging, bottom trawling and industrial overfishing has taken its toll. Once a complex submarine forest of corals and sponges supporting one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds, much of the seabed around the British Isles has been ploughed and pulverised to a barren wasteland of rock and mud.

Today’s supersized industrial fleet lands half as much fish as the Victorian sail-powered fleet of the 1880s. Yet rather than take heed of the warnings, we have responded to dwindling stocks by unleashing new technologies to fish ever harder, deeper, and further offshore, ratcheting up our fishing effort.

Unprecedented imports of cheap fish from the developing world, and a bloated subsidy that keeps our boats on the water no matter what the real cost to the taxpayer, belie the eerily empty waters that lap our shores. And so we stumble on in denial, blinkered from the environmental and economic lunacy of our fishing policy by the persistence of ever more exotic fish on our supermarket shelves.

Research published by WWF in December showed that EU fisheries ministers followed scientific advice in just 13% of their decisions over the past 9 years. Fishing quotas were fixed on average 45% above recommended scientific guidelines, approving fishing of 6.2 million extra tonnes of fish.

Fortunately change is underway. The European Parliament recently approved sweeping reforms to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which offer our best chance yet of steering a new course away from the shortsighted policies of recent decades, basing legislation on science rather than political seahorse-trading over quotas.

And our seas are incredibly resilient, showing promising recovery when we give them the chance. By designating areas of ocean as no-take zones, from which fishing is prohibited, we can give stocks the breathing space they need to rebuild.

Within these closed areas fish are able to grow and spawn, eventually producing a surplus that can spill over to support well-managed fisheries indefinitely, as well as helping reseed more degraded areas. Like a natural investment bank, no-take zones can ring-fence islands of precious marine capital from which we can fish the interest year on year.

Studies from around the world provide compelling evidence of the lasting economic benefits of no-take zones. Rather than coming at a cost to fishing communities, these zones can help enhance fisheries, increasing the profitability of landings. But this stable source of food and income only lasts as long as we resist the temptation to hoover up whatever savings we’ve set aside in a no-take zone.

Perhaps Defra ministers would do well to learn from the experiences from the traditional fishers of Madagascar, where communities have established no-take zones along hundreds of kilometres of coastline, reaping sustained economic benefits from improvements to their catches. For these villages, amongst some of the poorest coastal communities on earth, marine conservation is seen as an economic necessity; a vital insurance policy against the mismanagement of fisheries.

Here in Europe, we know that restoring our fish stocks to health would increase the value of catches by £2.7bn a year, creating 100,000 new jobs.  North of the border, the Scottish government forecasts that a marine protection network could provide economic benefits worth £10bn.

Yet despite the overwhelming body of evidence in favour of conservation, rather than opt for recovery, we have scaled back our commitment to marine protection, shying away from the protection that our coasts and fishing communities so desperately need. Marine conservation zones are not a cost to be shirked at the first opportunity. They are the fundamental building blocks of a sustainable marine economy. There is no ecological or economic rationale in fishing so hard while protecting so little.

Alasdair Harris is the Research Director of Blue Ventures, a science-led social enterprise that works with local communities to conserve threatened marine ecosystems and coastal livelihoods. Follow Al on twitter @aarhh.

Al Harris

About Al Harris

Al is BV's founder and executive director. A marine ecologist with an unhealthy obsession for corals, he has spent the past decade developing conservation initiatives in the Indian Ocean, and led his first marine research expedition to Madagascar in 2001.